We’ve been hearing a lot about probiotics and prebiotics lately. What’s the difference, and how can they benefit your bone health and overall health?
“Prebiotics” refers to specialized fiber sources (sometimes called “oligosaccharides”) that support and encourage beneficial gut flora. They assist “good” bacteria in thriving in your gut microbiome and bringing about positive changes in the organs and digestive tract. When the gut flora have an abundant food source in healthy prebiotics, more of these beneficial gut bacteria are produced.
Prebiotics are essentially undigestible fiber that passes through the upper gastrointestinal tract to the small intestine and then to the colon, where they are fermented by gut flora. Prebiotics are different from probiotics in that while probiotics bring bacteria into the gut that weren’t there before, prebiotics are a food source for the good bacteria that are already living there. Providing more food for your beneficial gut bacteria encourages these “gut good guys” to multiply and thrive.1
Combining Probiotics And Prebiotics
Probiotics and prebiotics can work together to create a healthier gut microbiome environment and boost levels of the positive bacterias bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. Synbiotics are supplements that are a combination of both prebiotics and probiotics.
The combination of prebiotics and probiotics can assist in relieving conditions such as diarrhea, intestinal infections, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and other and chronic disorders. The symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease are often relieved, as is candida and leaky gut syndrome. Prebiotics can also reduce risk of heart disease, help to regulate cholesterol and reduce the risk of weight gain and obesity.2
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Prebiotics change the gut microbiome in positive ways. While studying and documenting the specific types and their effects is still ongoing, there are a number that have been identified. Prebiotics are known to increase both lactobacilli and bifidobacterial strains. The benefits of prebiotics are many, but most primary is improved gut flora health.
Setting The Stage For Better Health
Gut balance is foundational to digestive health and the effective metabolism of foods and their vitamins and nutrients. Prebiotics and a healthy gut also help to reduce inflammation in the body, which creates a healthier environment overall that is less prone to autoimmune reactions and related diseases.
An optimal balance of bacteria in the gut microbiome also contributes to a strong immune system. When the immune system is robust, we are less prone to illness and enjoy a healthier quality of life overall. For this reason alone, optimizing the gut microbiome is a good idea. Additionally, prebiotics can assist with:
- Lowered risk of cardiovascular disease 3
- Improved cholesterol levels 4
- Regulation of blood sugar and reduced risk of diabetes 5 Lowered risk of weight gain and obesity 6
- Reduced harmful effects from the stress response 7
However, what’s less discussed is the benefits of prebiotics for bone health.
Improved Calcium Absorption
Research has shown that prebiotics are effective in assisting the body to better absorb a range of vitamins and nutrients. One of the most relevant to bone strength, health and density is calcium. Bone mineral density is directly enhanced by the presence of ideal gut flora, and using prebiotics can assist you in experiencing this powerful bone health benefit.8
The Power Of Inulin And Oligofructose For Bone Health
Inulin and oligofructose are prebiotics that are known as “fructans.” Studies have found that these potent compounds help to promote bone health by enhancing both magnesium and calcium absorption.
Fructans stimulate healthy bacteria growth in the large intestine to optimize mineral absorption in the body overall, but they are particularly beneficial to magnesium and calcium absorption for bone health and growth. The Journal of Nutrition reports more than 10 studies documenting how oligofructose and inulin benefit bone health in this manner. In this way, prebiotics can assist with preventing osteoporosis later in life.9
Bone Remodeling And Resorption
Prebiotics like oligofructose and inulin also assist with the natural process that bones go through to reshape and replenish. The body naturally sheds old bone cells regularly and then replaces it with fresh, new growth. Prebiotics assist with this remodeling process and create a vital link to bone integrity and strength going forward.
Increase In Bone Density Means Fewer Fractures
A 2007 study from The Journal of Nutrition showed that through enhanced mineral absorption, prebiotics helps strengthen the bones from the inside out.10 This results in stronger bones and fewer broken bones over a lifetime. There is also a lowered risk of osteoporosis in the older years. Just eight grams of prebiotics per day showed a positive effect in bone strength and increased bone density.11
Protection Against Cancer
In addition to posing a risk to the organs and tissues of the body, cancer can also affect the bones and bone marrow. However, numerous studies have found that consuming prebiotics can change gut microbiome composition by reducing cancer-promoting enzymes.
This is referred to as the “prebiotic effect,” which has key biomarkers that indicate an ideal, healthy gut. Stool quality is higher, infections and gastroenteritis are less frequent and overall immunity against a range of cancers is enhanced. Toxic load and pathology are also reduced through the antioxidant effect of prebiotics.12
Inflammation is a major factor in the onset of a range of diseases, including most cancers and cardiovascular disease. Research has shown that this is an area that prebiotics can help with. High fiber diets generally assist in lowering inflammation, improving gut health and decreasing the risk of cancer. However, prebiotics are also linked with a healthy immune system and turning off the processes that lead to harmful inflammation. They also contribute to decreased free radical production, which further assists in keeping inflammation at bay by detoxifying the body at the cellular level.
Sleep is an essential component of overall health and a robust immune system. Getting deep sleep regularly is also linked with having strong, healthy bones. Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder have found that dietary prebiotics can help to protect against stress-related insomnia. Stress is a major contributor to loss of sleep.
In the study, rats fed a diet supplemented with prebiotics showed higher levels of beneficial gut bacteria such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus, which boosts immune system functioning. A control group that did not receive prebiotocs did not show this benefit.
The prebiotic group also showed higher amounts of restorative sleep than the non-prebiotic group as well as the ability to recover faster from stressful stimuli.13
Top Food Sources Of Prebiotics
Prebiotics are found mainly in some specific raw vegetables, certain whole grains, honey and resistant starch, such as pre-ripe (green) bananas. The best natural sources of prebiotics include raw versions of the following:
- Jerusalem artichoke dandelion greens chicory root
- onions (raw or cooked) under-ripe bananas raw honey
- whole-grain wheat psyllium husk
If some of these foods seem obscure and hard to fit into your diet on a regular basis, take heart; all it requires is some creativity and planning. Since either cooked or raw onions are prebiotics, try to work them into your cooking as well as on salads and as a garnish.
Chop dandelion greens finely and include them in your salads or as a raw garnish on just about any main dish or side dish. Raw tomatoes are delicious and can be eaten whole with a little sea salt or cut into wedges or slices and enjoyed on salads and sandwiches.
Jerusalem artichokes and chicory root have interesting flavors and can be ground down to be included in dips and dressings. Acacia gum is a binder you can experiment with or take separately as you would a supplement.
The Sweet Side Of Prebiotics
Using raw honey instead of sugar allows you to enjoy this prebiotic more often. Raw garlic in hummus, salads and veggie dips is a flavorful addition. Bananas are easy to work into your diet, even slightly green ones. Try blending them into smoothies to make them easier to enjoy.
Are there any potential downsides to eating more prebiotic foods? In some cases, yes. In rare instances, they can make existing intestinal issues worse. If you are allergic to any of these foods, it is obviously not a good idea to eat them. You might consider trying a prebiotic supplement instead to see if your system handles it better. However, generally getting vitamins, nutrients and key compounds from natural, organic food sources is always best.
Hopefully, the mysterious prebiotic isn’t so mysterious to you anymore! As you can see, it brings a wide range of exciting health benefits, including better bone density and improvements in numerous other areas of health. Strive to work the prebiotic foods described here into your diet on a regular basis, or take high quality prebiotic and probiotic supplements to support your gut health and overall health.
1 Backhed F, Fraser CM, Ringel Y, Sanders ME, Sartor RB, Sherman PM, et al. Defining a healthy human gut microbiome: current concepts, future directions, and clinical applications. Cell Host Microbe. 2012;12:611–22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23159051?dopt=Abstract
2 Roberfroid M, Gibson GR, Hoyles L, McCartney AL, Rastall R, Rowland I, et al. Prebiotic effects: metabolic and health benefits. Br J Nutr. 2010;104 Suppl 2:S1–63.
3 Saavedra, J.M. and Tschernia, A., Human Studies With Probiotics and Prebiotics: Clinical Implications, British Journal of Nutrition, Volume 87, Supplement s2, 1 May 2002, pp. 241-246(6). https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/cabi/bjn/2002/00000087/900000s2/art00015
4 Liong, Min-Tze, Lee, Byong-H., Lee-Ching Lew, Sy-Bing Choi, Lau, Amy-Sie-Yik and Banan-Mwine Daliri, Eric. Cholesterol- lowering Effects of Probiotics and Prebiotics, from: Probiotics and Prebiotics: Current Research and Future Trends (Edited by: Koen Venema and Ana Paula do Carmo). Caister Academic Press, U.K. (2015) Pages: 429-446. https://doi.org/10.21775/9781910190098.29
5 Cani PD, Knauf C, Iglesias MA, et al. Improvement of glucose tolerance and hepatic insulin sensitivity by oligofructose requires a functional glucagon-like peptide 1 receptor. Diabetes 2006;55:1484–90.
6 E.M. Dewulf, P.D. Cani, S.P. Claus, et al. Insight into the prebiotic concept: lessons from an exploratory, double blind intervention study with inulin-type fructans in obese women. Gut, 62 (2013), pp. 1112-1121 https://gut.bmj.com/content/62/8/1112
7 Schmidt K, Cowen PJ, Harmer CJ, Tzortzis G, Errington S, Burnet PW. Prebiotic intake reduces the waking cortisol response and alters emotional bias in healthy volunteers.Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2015 May;232(10):1793-801. doi: 10.1007/s00213- 014-3810-0. Epub 2014 Dec 3. https://www.psych.ox.ac.uk/publications/492972
8 Scholz-Ahrens KE1, Ade P, Marten B, Weber P, Timm W, Açil Y, Glüer CC, Schrezenmeir J. Prebiotics, probiotics, and synbiotics affect mineral absorption, bone mineral content, and bone structure. J Nutr. 2007 Mar;137(3 Suppl 2):838S-46S. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17311984
9 McCabe, Laura, Britton, Robert A. and Parameswaran, Narayanan “Prebiotic and Probiotic Regulation of Bone Health: Role of the Intestine and its Microbiome.” Skeletal Biology and Regulation. September 30, 2015 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11914-015-0292-x
10 Ahrens KE, Ade P, Marten B, Weber P, Timm W, Acil Y, et al. Prebiotics, probiotics, and synbiotics affect mineral absorption, bone mineral content, and bone structure. J Nutr. 2007;137:838S–46. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17311984?dopt=Abstract
11 Scholz-Ahrens, Katharina E., Berit, Peter Ade, Petra Weber, Marten, Yahya Aςil, Wolfram Timm, Claus-C. GluÌˆer JuÌˆrgen Schrezenmeir “Prebiotics, Probiotics, and Synbiotics Affect Mineral Absorption, Bone Mineral Content, and Bone Structure.” The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 137, Issue 3, 1 March 2007, Pages 838S–846S, March 1, 2007 https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/137.3.838S
12 Roberfroid M, Gibson GR, Hoyles L, McCartney AL, Rastall R, Rowland I, et al. Prebiotic effects: metabolic and health benefits. Br J Nutr. 2010;104 Suppl 2:S1–63. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20920376?dopt=Abstract
13 Sasaki N. et al., “Impact of sleep on osteoporosis: sleep quality is associated with bone stiffness index.” Sleep Med. 2016 Sep;25:73-77. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/27823720/